Elif Shafak – a Gem of Contemporary Turkish Literature

By Leah Süss

After four semesters of studying English, I have realized that the novels that touch me most belong to the field of postcolonial literatures. However, my interest in “non-Western” literature had already been sparked years before university. I realised early on that immersing into a different culture’s experiences and its stories can be highly enriching, as it allows me a better understanding of other people’s realities, which finally enabled more tolerance and a better understanding of the world’s complexity. Reading a story of a white woman’s struggles in early Europe, for example, is touching as it seems to be easy to identify with the protagonist. But what about being confronted with a Kurdish male character who decides to kill his mother in the name of honour? This may sound less comfortable but, all in all, it can be extremely helpful to understand important issues with religious and cultural differences that are still prevalent today.                                                            

One of my favourite authors who allowed me such an experience is Elif Shafak. Having read almost every novel of hers, I count three of her books to my all-time favourites. Currently, I am reading her latest novel, and she keeps amazing me. Thus, I would like to introduce you to this talented and inspiring Turkish woman.

Elif Shafak, born in 1971, was raised by her mother and her grandmother in a conservative area in Turkey. Her grandmother was a traditionally religious and superstitious woman, whereas her mother was a modern and “westernized” person. Having thus always been surrounded by two different worlds, Shafak likes to present her characters in a clash between the two spheres of the rational and the mystical. As a passage in one of her novels reads: 

“We’re stuck. We’re stuck between the East and the West. Between the past and the future. On the one hand there are the secular modernists, so proud of the regime they constructed, you cannot breathe a critical word. They’ve got the army and half of the state on their side. On the other hand there are the conventional traditionalist, so infatuated with the Ottoman past, you cannot breathe a critical word. They’ve got the general public and the remaining half of the state on their side.” – Elif Shafak, The Bastard of Istanbul

Looking at this quote, it is not surprising to find that Shafak studied international relations and political sciences. When she had finished her degree, she started teaching gender studies in the United States until she ended up in London, where she now teaches at Kingston University. Besides her academic activity, she regularly publishes novels that are always embedded in a different political and cultural context. Most of her novels, however, are set in Istanbul. Her work is widely read and discussed, and it has been translated into 40 languages. Besides lecturing and writing, Shafak regularly gives talks and interviews, wherein she denounces the authoritarian tendency that is currently showing up in Turkey. This open critique earns her nothing but criticism and even official threats by the government and elite of her motherland. For example, after the publication of one of her first novels, in which the protagonist addresses the Armenian genocide, Shafak’s novel was accused of “denigration of Turkishness”. It was the first time that a work of fiction was put on trial, forcing her lawyer to defend fictional characters. Even though the case was soon considered as closed, the trial led to a shocking amount of hatred and rage that erupted in the streets of Istanbul, including far-right activists who spat on portraits of the author. This was in 2006 and the situation in Turkey has only gotten worse. So, when her beloved grandmother died in 2017, Shafak did not feel safe enough to attend the burial, as she was aware that she could be arrested as soon as she entered the country. While thus incessantly being confronted with criticism, contempt and even death threats, Shafak, nevertheless, does not give in, and she keeps writing and fighting for her convictions. 

Shafak’s latest novel 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World, published in 2019, addresses many issues that have been and are still ubiquitous in Turkey, such as the precarious lives of prostitutes, transgender and other marginalized people. The novel also engages with the patriarchal structures of Turkish families, and it uncovers experiences of violence and sexual abuse. Regarding these topics, it becomes clear why the Turkish government and elite do not approve of the work. In an interview with the Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger, Shafak reveals that her main aim is to “give marginalized and silenced people a voice” (which is similar to many postcolonial writers). Describing her country as a place “where only one voice is allowed to appear in the media and in politics”, her focus on silenced people’s realities seems to be more important than ever. For Shafak, who is used to living in exile, the process of writing a novel feels like “escaping into a different country”. In her opinion, it is this “land of literature” that proves to be the “one space of unconditional democracy”. Shafak explains that only when she has finished a novel and has to “return into the real world”, she starts worrying about the consequences of her work. Nevertheless, she realizes that at that point, her novel has “already been born”. Thus, looking at Shafak’s precondition for living and writing, she strikes me as a woman full of courage and empathy, and her work gains importance regarding a Turkey in which people are no longer allowed to speak their minds. 

Besides the importance in content, however, I admire Elif Shafak’s work for its literary style. When reading her novels, one can strongly feel her pleasure with finding felicitous expressions and creating metaphors. One example of an interesting simile can be seen in this passage:

“The Germans invited you to their country to work, not to mingle, and expected you to leave as soon as you were no longer needed. Adapting to their ways was like trying to embrace a hedgehog. There might be a secret tenderness, a gentle core underneath, but you couldn’t pass the sharp needles to tap into it.”  – Elif Shafak, Honour

One remarkable feature of this lies in the strong focus on colours and tastes. Shafak actually admits in interviews that she can “taste words”, and that she connects them with memories. For example, the word ‘purple’ “tastes like liquorice” or the concept of ‘love’ is “connected to cinnamon”. In a TED Talk, Shafak further reveals that she varies between writing in Turkish and writing in English. Comparing her experiences, she explains that when writing in her mother tongue, her expressions were “very poetic and emotional”, whereas English felt more “mathematic and cerebral”. On the other hand, her frustration with writing in a second language appeared to be “very stimulating” to her, and it allowed her to “recreate” herself. As Shafak once said: 

“I realized over the years if I’m writing about humor, irony, satire, I much prefer to do that in English. And if there is sorrow, melancholy, longing, I much prefer to do that in Turkish. Each language has its own strength to me, and I feel connected and attached to both Turkish and English. I dream in more than one language”. – Elif Shafak

A last feature that makes her extraordinary is that even when discussing serious topics, Shafak’s narrator and her characters always narrate the story with a sense of humour and ironical distance, which shows how despite all the overt and implied criticism, Shafak loves her motherland and its culture with all her heart. As Shafak puts it:

“I write with humour about sadness, to introduce an element of sweet to the sour, a bit like Turkish food” – Elif Shafak

So, If you are interested in reading on of Shafak’s novels, I can highly recommend my three favourites Honour, The Bastard of Istanbul, The Architect’s Apprentice,and the latest novel that I am currently reading 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Honour is extraordinary because it discusses the taboo topic of honour killings, embedded in a story about a Kurdish family that immigrated to London. As I proposed in the introduction, I can guarantee that you will understand (though not approve of) the murder’s motives for killing his mother (!) at the end. Exactly in this achievement lies the power of Elif Shafak; enabling you to see the complexity of things and understand other people’s decisions. The Bastard of Istanbul, on the other hand, is highly recommendable, as it is relatively short but highly complex nevertheless, covering delicate topics such as the Armenian genocide, the experience of rape and of raising a child as a single mother. It was the first novel of Shafak’s that I read, and it left me wanting to read more. A little extra I loved was that she includes a recipe of a Turkish dish that keeps coming up in the story at the end that leaves you craving Turkish food! Pomegranate seeds is all I will say… The last novel that belongs to my list of favourites is The Architect’s Apprentice, as I love historical fiction and the focus on Turkish architecture. The story, set in the ancient Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire, revolves around the famous architect Sinan, who built some of the most beautiful mosques in Istanbul. The descriptions of palaces and mosques are written in such a passionate way that after reading them, I momentarily decided to become an architect myself. So, if you’re interested in glimpses into a rich ancient culture, embedded in a creative and compelling story, then I can only recommend this book. For me it was the perfect summer-break reading material, as it allowed me to completely delve into another world. 

Coming to an end, you have probably noticed by now how much I adore this Turkish woman’s work and personality, and if I have achieved to inspire some of you to read her novels or listen to her talks, I am more than happy. Ending with a quotation of hers that sums it up nicely: 

“Books change us. Books save us. I know this because it happened to me. Books saved me. So, I do believe through stories we can learn to change, we can learn to empathize and be more connected with the universe and with humanity.” – Elif Shafak

Editor’s Note: Elif Shafak has just been longlisted for the Booker Prize for 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World. The shortlist will be announced on the 3rd of September 2019.

Sources: 

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